Dan Connell, "Millions May Starve, but Ethiopian Regime Bids to Control," Wall Street Journal, January 10, 1985.

(Summary by Harminder Bhullar)




            Connell, alongside another article appearing in this same issue of The Wall Street Journal (“Murder by Hunger”), probes the roots of the famine deep within rural Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, where nearly 6 million people, many too weak to walk, face death by starvation because the bulk of these famine victims receive less than 5% of the aid that is channeled through government-controlled relief centers. However, drought is only part of the problem. Wars between nationalist guerillas and the Ethiopian government have divided the worst hit areas into separate “territories,” with opposition in the Red Sea territory of Eritrea and northern provinces of Tigre controlling up to 80% of the countryside most affected by the 5 year drought.

            Connell points out that the Ethiopian government continues to systematically cover-up the fact that it lacks access to most of the natives starving in the countryside in fear of the political implications of its excessive loss of territorial control. And “the U.N., among others, is complicitous in this cover-up by remaining silent about it.” As a result, food aid has become a powerful political weapon used by the government in the control of the region, at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians that are dying. Even private agencies working under the government auspices cover-up by omitting such key facts from their reports.

“To ignore these facts is to consign hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians to invisibility and almost certain death.”

Meanwhile, the wars continue between the guerillas and the government, taking even more innocent lives. Soviet-supplied MiGs bomb refugees, killing 18 and wounding 561 at an attack near the Sudan border. Many starving peasants would rather take a four-to-eight week journey from drought affected areas towards Sudan than a three hour walk to a government run relief center; even though most know they may not survive. Why? Many say that they crossed battle lines to seek government aid, “only to be mistreated, harassed, and in some cases beaten and denied food because they came from rebel-held areas.” Many are forcefully “resettled” to an inhospitable climate in southern Ethiopia. Fear of this has caused a massive outflow towards Sudan. However, relief operations to guerilla-controlled areas have not been given the attention or the support necessary to save lives. Relief efforts based in Sudan are poorly underfinanced by a small group of Canadian, European, and U.S. church and relief organizations. Due to the cover-up by the government, the death toll climbs to more than 200,000 in Tigre alone, “behind a curtain of silence” that keeps the public unaware of what is really happening.

Connell states that what is needed now is “immediate and full disclosure of the political dimensions of this crisis by aid agencies, governments, U.N. organizations, and media alike.” Such actions would at least open the way to two essential first steps. First, “the safe passage of relief supplies under neutral international supervision to the hungry across battle lines through airlift and truck.” Second, “an even distribution of aid to famine victims wherever they are to be found, according to objective assessments of need regardless of political consideration.” Furthermore, these actions are fruitless unless coupled with substantial economic and social rehabilitation.

He concludes by saying, “a halt to the political manipulation of this terrible tragedy is long overdue. All those in position to foster peace and an equitable distribution of aid must now step forward—there is simply no longer an excuse to stay quiet.”